A BLACK AND WHITE FILM
By Charmane Sing
A child colours her drawing
of a bird with a black crayon on a sheet of white paper. A feeling
of tranquility fills the air as the child innocently hums to
herself. Suddenly, her paper is torn in the middle by an unknown
force. The rip was so deep that it destroyed the bird. This
was the beginning segment of the film To Kill a Mockingbird,
a 1960s movie based on Harper Lee's novel.
The story took place
in Maycomb, a small town in Southern Alabama, where racial prejudice
was prevalent and was a part of everyday life. Scout Finch,
the narrator of the story, reflects on an event from her childhood
that changed her family's life - the criminal prosecution of
Tom Robinson. Tom, a Black man, was alleged to have raped and
battered a White woman, Mayella Ewell. Atticus Finch, Scout's
father and a respectable lawyer in Maycomb, was appointed to
act as Tom's defense counsel.
Not long after accepting his appointment, Atticus and his family
were subject to numerous negative remarks by the White community
for defending a Black man. The primary person giving Atticus
a hard time was Bob Ewell, Mayella's alcoholic father. The treatment
Atticus experienced for defending a Black person was not uncommon
nor was it unexpected in a time when Black people were regarded
as inferior to Whites. This animosity towards the Black community
was also carried to Tom's trial and brought the legal system
Tom was never presumed to be innocent throughout his trial.
In a criminal proceeding, the fundamental presumption is that
the accused is innocent until proven guilty. For Tom, the jury
presumed he was guilty before entering the courtroom. The jury's
presumption of guilt instead of innocence was not surprising
given the intense racial prejudice against Blacks in Maycomb.
As Bryan Fair has stated, when the presumption of innocence
becomes an "empty idea" and racial
prejudice is allowed inside the courtroom, the integrity of the
criminal justice system fails. It is almost unnecessary to have
a trial when the accused is already presumed to be guilty and
has a slim, if any, chance of being able to prove his or her
innocence before a biased jury. Tom's trial served no purpose
and was more of an entertaining spectacle for the people of Maycomb.
In a system where only Whites control the rules, run the system
and decide the ultimate decisions, it is very difficult for a
Black person like Tom to be ensured that he would be treated
fairly. Fair made this same point when he discussed the legal
system as being more than just rules, but "also the people
who control and implement them."
It may at first blush raise skepticism and concern for the fairness
of the White defendant's trial. This skepticism and lack of trust
might arise from fear that Blacks would seek vengeance against
Whites for past wrongdoings. This feeling of unfairness and
skepticism for most people would only be present in the hypothetical
and not in a situation where a Black defendant is to be tried
in a White dominated court.
It is interesting that a White dominated judicial system would
be seen as being capable of being free from racial prejudice
towards a Black accused, whereas a Black dominated system would
be seen as being unable to separate racial animosity in their
justice system. In my opinion, it is insulting to presume that
an all Black system would be incapable of administering a fair
trial. This presumption has an underlying belief that Whites
are superior because Whites have the ability to put aside their
racial bias toward Blacks while Blacks would be unable to put
aside their vengeance and hatred toward Whites. It implies that
Blacks are uncivilized because if given the chance, they would
seek vengeance through a system that was meant to bring order
and justice to society.
Although vengeance can be a strong driving force to an unfair
trial, it is not the only factor to a tainted trial. It is equally
likely that in any system that is controlled by a group of people
with a set of strong beliefs, there would be unfairness to other
minority groups regardless of who is the dominant group. Therefore,
to ensure a fair criminal justice system, neither group should
have major control over any steps of the process.
Another factor that should be taken into account is the jury's
and the dominant society's personal beliefs and opinions of Blacks.
The environment one grew up in can play a powerful role as the
ideas and values from the surrounding community are influential
to a person's decisions and perspective. As Atticus pointed
out in his closing statement, the jury has stereotypical presumptions
that all Black people lie and can't be trusted. These beliefs
are prejudicial to Tom because members of the jury bring these
previously held biases and beliefs with them to court.
Using the trial in the film Twelve Angry Men as an example,
Lawrence Friedman argues that trials have an "educational
function" in which they reinforce a society's norms and
bind a society together (2). In
other words, when the jury is determining the verdict, they are
also collectively reaffirming and reinforcing societal views
and norms. Therefore, if the jury accepted Tom's testimony over
the Ewell's, it would be a significant shift in societal beliefs
that the Whites would not be prepared or willing to accept.
By accepting Tom's testimony, it would suggest that Blacks are
not liars and perhaps also infer that like the Ewells, Whites
are liars and are the ones that should not be trusted. Changing
a significant societal belief and stepping over what Friedman
calls as defined boundaries will be a shock to the system and
will as a result, weaken the order of the society. Hence trials,
like Tom's case, are "boundary-maintaining devices [that]
help cement social solidarity by redefining and proclaiming the
An instance where the jury cannot find themselves to believe
Tom's testimony or willing to change a societal norm is that
a White woman would tempt a Black man and that an inferior Black
man would "feel sorry" for a White woman. In his article,
Friedman also commented a trial to be a "narrative competition"
where both sides attempt to persuade the jury to accept their
version of the fact. The "arguments presented in trials
are often important clues to what stories count as good, or true,
or compelling stories, within a particular culture."
Members of the jury would most likely be compelled to believe
a story that they want to believe in. In this case, the jury
would prefer Mayella's version of the story that an untrustworthy
Black man sexually assaulted a White woman. This version would
be consistent with the belief that Black men can't be trusted,
especially around White women. It is also consistent with the
perception that Blacks are undesirable. As Atticus pointed out,
if Mayella had desired Tom, she would have broken a code of society
by tempting a Black man.
Another explanation to the jury's difficulty in accepting Tom's
testimony is based on an interesting relationship discussed in
class about Aristotle's theory of pity. Aristotle stated that
in order to have sympathy for another person, one must have relative
freedom from suffering. As well, one generally feels pity for
someone who is their equal or who is inferior to them. When
Tom indicated that he felt sympathy for Mayella, he was also
stating that Whites are inferior to Blacks or at most, equal
to Blacks. Tom's story and expression of his sympathetic feelings
towards Mayella sound absurd in a culture that treats Blacks
as slaves and servants to the Whites. As a result, a jury with
personal racial biases would find Tom's testimony of sympathizing
a White woman and Mayella's desire for him to be proof that Blacks
Had Tom been a White person and gave the same evidence, the jury
would have acquitted. A verdict was based entirely on racial
bias. Or perhaps, the "skin colour was the final arbiter"
in court. If racial bias controls and determines the outcome
of a case instead of the truth, the integrity of the legal system
"It is a sin to kill a
mockingbird because they don't do anything but sing for us to
- Atticus Finch to Scout Finch -
K Fair, "Using Parrots to Kill Mockingbirds: Yet Another
Racial Prosecution and Wrongful Conviction in Maycomb",
(1994) 45 Alabama Law Review at 417.
2. Lawrence M.
Friedman, "Law, Lawyers and Popular Culture", (1989)
98 Yale L. J. at 1594.
Posted November 11, 2003